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Harry Potter and the sad Grown-ups

By Jonathan Myerson ■李家真 译评
Walking through my train yesterday, staggering from my seat to the buffet and back, I counted five people reading Harry Potter novels. Not children—these were real grown-ups reading children's books. It was as if I had wandered into a John Wyndham scenario where the adults' brains have been addled by a plague and they have returned to childishness, avidly hunting out their toys and colouring-in books.

Maybe that would have been understandable. If these people had jumped whole-heartedly into a second childhood it would have made more sense. But they were card-carrying grown-ups with laptops and spreadsheets returning from sales meetings and seminars. Yet they chose to read a children's book.

I don't imagine you'll find this headcount exceptional. You can no longer get on the London Tube and not see a Harry Potter book, and I presume the same is true on the Glasgow Metro or the Manchester trams, or the beaches of Ibiza or clubs of Ayia Napa. Who told these adults they should read a kids' book? Do we see them ploughing through Tom's Midnight Garden? Of course not; if you suggested it they would rightly stare, bemused, and say: "Isn't that a kids' book? Why would I want to read that? I'm 37/42/63."

Nor is it just the film; these throwback readers were out there in droves long before the movie campaign opened. Warner Brothers knows it can't hope to recoup its reputed $100m costs through ticket sales to children alone. But the adult desire to tangle with Harry, Hermione and Voldemort existed long before the director Chris Columbus got his hands on the story.

So who are these adult readers who have made JK Rowling the second-biggest female earner in Britain (after Madonna)? As I have tramped along streets knee-deep in Harry Potter paperbacks, I've mentally slotted them into three groups.

First come the Never-Readers, whom Harry has enticed into opening a book. Is this a bad thing? Probably not. Ever since the invention of moving pictures, the written word has struggled to be as instantaneously exciting. Writing has many advantages over film, but it can never compete with its magnetic punch. If these books can re-establish the novel as a thrilling experience for some people, then this can only be for the better. If it takes obsession-level hype to lure them into a bookshop, that's fine by me. But will they go on to read anything else? Again, we can only hope. It has certainly worked at schools, especially for boys, whose reading has clearly taken an upward swing — for this alone, Rowling deserves her rewards.

The second group are the Occasional Readers. These people claim that tiredness, work and children allow them to read only a few books a year. Yet now — to be part of the crowd, to say they've read it — they put Harry Potter on their oh-so-select reading list. It's infuriating, it's maddening, it sends me ballistic. Yes, I'm a writer myself, writing difficult, unreadable, hopefully unsettling novels, but there are so many other good books out there, so much rewarding, enlightening, enlarging works of fiction for adults; and yet these sad cases are swept along by the hype, the faddism, into reading a children's book. Put like that, it's worse than maddening, it's pathetic. When I rule the world, all editions will carry a heavy-print warning: "This Is A Children's Book, Designed For Under Elevens. It May Seriously Damage Your Credibility." I can dream, can't I?

The third group are the Regular Readers, for whom Harry is sandwiched between McEwan and Balzac, Roth and Dickens. This is the real baffler—what on earth do they get out of reading it? Why bother? But if they can rattle through it in a week just to say they've been there — like going to Longleat or the Eiffel Tower—the worst they're doing is encouraging others.

By now you're asking: "What's he got against these books, they're just a bit of escapism, just a great fantasy?" First, let me make it clear, I'm not here to criticise or praise the quality of JK's prose or inventiveness. They may indeed be the best children's novels ever written. But I'm sure JK would be the first to agree that they are children's books, that they are successful precisely because they appeal so directly to the childish imagination, address the problems and questions of childhood, enact the hopes and dreams of childhood. Now this is a completely different set of questions from those that mesmerise us in adult life. A child is free to wonder about magic, to believe in the clear purity of the struggle between good and evil, to bask in simple, unquestioning friendships. As adults, we deal with the constantly muddled nature of good and evil, we carry a responsibility for the safety of others, we crave success and fear failure, we confront the reality instead of dreams.

And this is why different books are written for these two tribes. When I read a novel, I look to it to tell me some truths about human life — the truths that non-fiction cannot reach. These might be moral, sexual, political or psychological truths and I expect my life to be enlarged, (however slightly, by the experience of reading something fictional.) I cannot hope to come closer to any of these truths through a children's novel, where nice clean white lines are painted between the good guys and the evil ones, where magic exists, and where there are adults on hand to delineate rules. Adult fiction is about a world without rules.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "Does everything we read somehow have to improve us? Does even a novel have to 'enlarge' us? Isn't there room for a bit of escapism?" Of course there is! But there is such a thing as escapism for adults. There are plenty of books that have little or nothing genuinely to say about the human condition, but at least they are constructed from the building bricks of adult experience — there are sexual tensions in the evil, there is a dubiety between the good guys and the bad, there is an understanding of complex human psychologies. Even the flimsiest of science fiction or the nastiest of horror stories or the most intricate of spy novels uses this as the mortar to bond together its narrative. There is no such psychological understanding in children's novels: it would be foolish for any children's writer to hope that a child reader would understand, let alone enjoy, such a level of plotting. To read a children's book is not escapism — it's evasion, it's retreat, it's surrender.

So how do all these grown-ups manage to get through it? Of course, we have all read similar books out loud to our children and enjoyed the experience, possibly enjoyed the book itself — only because we were vicariously enjoying it through them. This is one of the few untouchable pleasures of parenting; to live and relive experiences through your children, whether book or film or music. This is no different from taking them to see the latest Disney — you'll laugh, you'll get into it, you may even have a good time. But would you actually book a ticket to go and see it on your own? Of course not; it might be seen as rather sad, if not downright suspect.

So why do you read Harry Potter on your own? When the adult crossover first began, I remember a friend who works in the City covering his embarrassment by saying he had got so wrapped up in it while reading to his kids that he had to finish it alone in bed that night. At least, in those early days, he knew it was shaming to read a kids' book. Now we have the appalling spectacle of City brokers and merchant bankers block-booking seats in cinemas for their staff outings. God save us.
Is it just nostalgia? For those of us old enough to have been brought up in a largely literary age, where child escapism existed mainly on the page, Potter might be seen as a return to Narnia and Dolittle and Streatfield. It seems as though there has been nothing quite as good since — but that's only because you're supposed to grow out of children's books.

For others, no doubt, brought up in the Star Wars age, it is yet another nostalgic return to England-land. There is no denying that Rowling has gone out of her way —maybe not cynically, maybe by genuine heartfelt choice — to place Potter-land in the traditional English milieu, all green fields and mossy stone quads, something more English than anyone under 80 has ever known.

Sure, maybe Harry Potter does have all these side values; it's safe, it's England, it's like something we used to read. But get real, please, there is so much good fiction out there, written specifically for your adult age group, written with you in mind. Please, next time, choose that. Don't keep running away from life.







最后一种是经常读书的人。在他们那里,哈里夹杂在迈克万(Ian McEwan, 英国当代作家)、巴尔扎克、罗斯(Eugen Roth,德国现代诗人)和狄更斯们当中。这些人我真搞不懂——他们究竟能从这本书里得到什么?干吗在它上面下工夫?但如果他们只是带着到此一游的目的在一周内把它草草读完的话——就像去朗利特山庄(英国名胜)或埃菲尔铁塔一样——他们造成的最坏影响就是怂恿了其他人(去读《哈里·波特》)。

现在你们会问:“为什么他要反对这些书?它们只不过有点脱离现实,只不过是一个精彩的幻想故事而已。”首先我要申明,我不是要批评或褒扬罗琳的文字或独创性,也许罗琳的书的确是曾有过的最佳儿童小说。但我想她会第一个同意它们是儿童书籍,其成功之处正是在于它们直接诉诸儿童的想象,针对儿童时期的问题,展现了童年的梦想和希望。这些问题和成年人生活中的那些麻烦是完全不同的。孩子们可以任意想象有关魔法的事情,可以相信善恶斗争的绝对纯粹、尽情沐浴天真无邪、不折不扣的友情。作为成年人,我们要对付总是泾渭难分的善恶天性;我们要对他人安全承担责任;我们渴望成功、恐惧失败;我们面对的是现实而非梦想。 这就说明了为什么不同的书是分别写给儿童和成人看的。读小说的时候,我希望它能告诉我一些人类生活的真理——非小说类作品所不能触及的真理。这些真理可以是道德方面的、性方面的、有关政治的或是有关心理的,而且我希望我的生命能因这种阅读体验而丰富,哪怕是一点儿也好。我不能指望儿童小说能让我在这方面有任何收获。在儿童小说里面,有清楚整齐的白线画在好汉与坏蛋之间,有魔法、有在场制定规则的大人。而成人小说中的世界是无规则的。




只是怀旧吗?我们的年纪使我们得以成长在一个文学风行的年代,儿时幻想主要寄托在书本上。对我们来说,波特也许是拿尼亚(英国作家C. S. Lewis的小说《狮王、女巫与衣橱》里的动物王国)、杜立德(英国作家Hugh Lofting 的小说《杜立德医生故事》里的人物)和斯特雷特菲尔德(Noel Streatfeild,英国儿童作家)的复归。从那时起似乎就再也没有能和它们媲美的书了——不过这也可能只因为人们不让你再读儿童书籍了。 对其他人——当然,他们在《星球大战》时代长大——来说,这倒意味着另一种对“英格兰”土地的怀旧复归。不容否认,罗琳特地——也许不是出于讥讽、也许是发自内心的选择——把波特的世界放在了传统英国的环境中。这里处处绿野、石庭苔痕,这一切比所有80岁以下的英国人所熟知的英国更加“英国”。



我们不应以小人之心忖度文章作者是酸葡萄心理,因为他的文字也很可爱,里面也有真性情在。不过他的论点却让人不敢苟同。作为单身母亲的罗琳女士,在潦倒之中写了《哈里·波特》。用她自己的话说,是在为自己写作,并非针对任何特定人群。她的写作是对成名前灰暗生活的奋力抗争,是基于对写作本身的热爱,这样绝无投降之意的作者也不太可能以她的书去引领读者逃避现实。抛开这些不谈,如果孩子爱读的东西成人就读不得,那么像《格林童话》、《小王子》以及《一千零一夜》这样的名篇如何可以说是“老少咸宜”, 《西游记》又如何成为经典?








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